TODAY IS FIRST LADY OBAMA’s 51st birthday. From the moment she entered the national spotlight, Obama has been a history maker and a cultural icon. Mickalene Thomas was inspired by the latter image when she made what is considered the first solo portrait of Obama, a print donated to the Obama campaign shortly before the 2009 inauguration.

“It is meaningful because it is a symbol of the time. I think it’s a great symbol to have as a reminder for people of that particular period,” Thomas wrote for Artphaire last year. “There was all this excitement that was happening around Barack and Michelle being the first African-American President and first African-American First Lady, bringing people together about change and awareness. It was just a really powerful moment in our American history.”

 

michelle obama by mickalene thomas
MICKALENE THOMAS, “Michelle O,” 2008 (screenprint on paper). | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Kenneth I. Schaner, © Mickalene Thomas

 

Thomas’s practice is defined by her powerful portrayals of black women, which capitalize on their natural beauty. More often than not, she embellishes the works with a bit of sparkle, giving them an added lift, amplifying their allure. She painted portraits of Condoleezza Rice and Oprah Winfrey before see immortalized Obama.

Titled “Michelle O,” the 2008 Pop art-style screen print is a nod to Andy Warhol’s vision of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (also known as “Jackie O”). Compared with Thomas’s other work, the posterized image is relatively subdued, an appropriate choice for a political portrait. She doesn’t abandon her signature flair, however, using Democratic blue to inject a pop of color and embellishing the black elements with glitter. The iconic image was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 2010.

“I would love to do another painting of her, a real painting where I can actually sit down and talk to her. Now that would be art historical!”
— Mickalene Thomas, Artphaire

Thomas further confided: “I would love to do another painting of her, a real painting where I can actually sit down and talk to her. Now that would be art historical!” CT

 

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